Professor Henry Srebrnik

Professor Henry Srebrnik

Monday, January 25, 2016

Secularism in a Religious Age

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

One of the major debates of our time deals with the issue of religion and secularism in western societies. In democracies, should religion be forced into the private sphere with little or no public voice?

Sociologist José Casanova of Georgetown University in Washington contends that we are now witnessing a process of “deprivatization” of religion as a global trend.

The very notion of secularism derives from western Christian, that is, Roman Catholic doctrine, where the ecclesiastical and temporal domains were not fused but had dual spheres, unlike in Orthodox Christianity, Islam, and other religions.

This would eventually, in modern republican France, turn into laicité, a rigid form of secularism which is central to the attitude that the French state and the French people have come to hold towards religion.

This form of secularism, which is often termed anti-clericalism, aims to contain and marginalize everything religious, and ban it from any visible presence in the secular public square. It presumes that these older traditions have now, in the modern world, been transcended.

As William Connolly, a political theorist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, has noted, laicité associates secularism with rational argument, tolerance, and the public interest. It considers itself neutral and value-free, while religion is associated with intolerance and violence.

Hence religion is forbidden to intervene in matters of state. Its place is in civil society, if at all. Hence the prohibition of headscarves and other religious symbols in public schools.

The Protestant form of secularism, especially in its so-called “Judeo-Christian” American version, is different. While there is strict formal separation of church and state, there is a blurring of the boundaries between faith and politics, resulting in a blending of the two, such that the religious becomes secular and the secular religious.

In this type of secularism, religion becomes a source of unity and identity, a “civil religion” that, according to a political scientist Elizabeth Hurd of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, emphasizes the connections between the moral values of religion and modern democratic governance.

So religion plays a role within secular politics, serving, writes Ted Jelen, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, as “the basis of an ethical consensus without which popular government could not operate.”

The objective is not to expel religion from politics in the name of an independent ethic, but to accommodate “a shared adherence to a shared religious tradition” in the body politic, one that rises above any specific church or creed. Religion is seen as foundational to American national identity.

“Religion shapes the nation’s character,” observes Walter Russell Mead, professor of foreign affairs and humanities at Bard College in New York.

This type of secularism incorporates a watered-down, common denominator form of religious pluralism, one that does not privilege any particular denomination. Hence the use of a generalized faith-based terminology in American politics, something that does not occur in France.

Will the two main models of secularism be able to cope with community-oriented religions such as Islam, Hinduism, Sikkism, and very strict forms of Christianity and Judaism, as these become more prevalent in western countries?

These faiths, notes Rajeev Bhargava of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in Delhi, demand greater public presence and even official recognition for themselves, in terms of diet, dress, and worship, among other issues.

The two main western forms of secularism, which view religion as mainly an individual, not collective, matter, were not designed for states with very deep religious diversity, he warns, especially when they include faiths in conflict with one another theologically and politically.

So they are ill prepared to meet the challenges posed by fundamentalist Islam in today’s “competition of beliefs,” argues Oxford emeritus political philosopher Larry Siedentop. We shall see.

Saudi Treatment of Women

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer
When it comes to women’s rights, Saudi Arabia is arguably the most repressive society on earth.

Most of the kingdom’s subjects are members of the Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam, often described as “ultraconservative” or “puritanical.” Known as Muwahhidun, they adhere to the strict Hanbali school of jurisprudence.

This form of Islam particularly affects the position of women.

A Saudi woman cannot leave her home without covering her hair and putting on a niqab to cover her face and a floor-length abaya. She cannot drive a car. Public transportation is segregated, as are beaches and amusement parks.

Since 2013, women have been allowed to ride bicycles, but only in designated parks and recreation areas, chaperoned by a close male relative. 

The guardianship system requires an adult woman to get permission from a male guardian -- typically a father, brother or husband -- before travelling overseas, opening a bank account, or seeking medical care. They must approve every move, including trips to neighboring women’s homes for tea.

It is a country where single people of opposite sexes cannot spend time together without risking arrest. Institutions and businesses that serve Saudi women are carefully guarded, so as to prevent ikhtilat, illegal gender mixing.

In general, women face more severe penalties for sexual transgressions than do men. Women who are seen socializing with a man who is not a relative, can be harassed by the mutaween, the country’s religious police, and even charged with a crime. 

In some cases, victims are punished for khalwa, being alone with an unrelated male, prior to an assault.

There are no male employees at girls’ schools or women’s colleges other than its security officers, who keep males from entering. 

In 2002, 15 girls died in a fire at a girls school because the mutaween at first kept male firefighters from entering the building. They also tried to keep the girls inside the burning school because they were not wearing headscarves and black robes.

Maintaining women-only bank branches, government offices, shops, and other businesses requires an entire infrastructure of segregation.

Companies that employ both men and women must create separate areas for female workers, allowing them to communicate with male colleagues without the risk of being seen by them.

Restaurants serving both genders must provide “family sections,” secluded areas for women where female diners who cover their faces can eat comfortably. Women need to enter and exit through special doors.

A woman’s testimony in court is, with few exceptions, valued at half that of a man. A homicide case, for example, normally requires testimony from two male witnesses; if only one is available, two female witnesses may be substituted for the other. 

The inheritance share of women in the country is generally smaller than that to which men are entitled.

The marriages of Saudi women are usually arranged, and girls can be forced into child marriages with old men. It remains extremely difficult for women to obtain divorces. These make up just over four per cent of the total. 

Most women are unsuccessful in their efforts to obtain one, and those who do succeed must, at a minimum, repay their dowries to their former husbands. On the other hand, for men – who may have up to four wives – divorce is a simple matter.

In short, women must be barred from exercising authority over men and from most public places where they might mix freely with men.
Some might argue that this separation of genders does at least prevent sexual harassment. But that’s not true. 

There are stories of children who have been raped by a relative or the family driver. Yet the victim’s parents declined to press charges. 

Parents, fearing ruined marriage prospects, chose silence, which meant that the men went unpunished. And for some of the girls the secrecy only amplified the trauma.

A few weeks ago Margot Wallstrom, the Swedish foreign minister, denounced the subjugation of women in Saudi Arabia. 

In turn, Saudi Arabia withdrew its ambassador and stopped issuing visas to Swedish businessmen. The Organization of Islamic Co-operation, which represents 56 Muslim-majority states, accused Sweden of failing to respect the world’s “rich and varied ethical standards.”

Monday, January 18, 2016

Will Non-Religious Jews Survive?

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

Can Jews remain Jewish without a belief in God?

The east European Jews who arrived as immigrants to this country and to the United States at the turn of the twentieth century were, in the main, steeped in traditional Judaism. They tried to hold onto their culture as tenaciously as possible.

Of course acculturation, and even total assimilation, into the dominant culture, does happen, though it often takes two or more generations. Many of their children left the religious fold, nor did they hold on to their lingua franca, Yiddish.

Today, Jews who are secular and feel Jewish only by ethnicity and memory may marry non-Jews; their children, and certainly grandchildren, will probably be lost to the Jewish people. I know many such cases.

The only Jews outside Israel of whom it can be said with some certainly that they will remain Jewish, barring some calamity, will be the Orthodox – and especially the so-called “ultra-Orthodox.”

They adhere to the totality of Jewish faith, the written and oral law (the Torah) as revealed to Moses by God at Mount Sinai, followed by the Talmudic and other commentaries through the centuries, and codified in the rules of Halakha. For them, the covenant with God, who “chose” them to bring light unto the nations, is permanent.

And for them the world will only be redeemed with the coming of the messiah, not through utopian political ideologies of various stripes.

Not until then will even the state of Israel be secure from destruction by its various enemies; these have been many in Jewish history.

Indeed, were Israel to cease to exist as a state, it is conceivable that much of its own secular Jewish population might relocate to the Torontos and New Yorks of the world.

Why not? Speaking Hebrew and living in Tel Aviv is not enough for one to remain Jewish; after all, one million Israeli Arabs speak the language – and they are most decidedly not Jews! Many Jewish Israelis already buy into the “post-Zionist” narrative and some even advocate a “state of the whole people.”

Of course nothing in the Orthodox world – the dietary laws, the various other commandments, the idea that Israel is the “promised land” -- makes any sense to “rational” people steeped in the ways of “modernity.”

But for the faithful, these rules, and the various biblical miracles, simply imply that God has intervened in human affairs. After all, God can do anything – this is the religious equivalent of political philosopher Carl Schmitt’s “state of exception.”

If there is some person or institution, in a given polity, capable of bringing about a total suspension of the law and then use extra-legal force to normalize a dire situation, argued Schmitt, then that person or institution is the sovereign in that polity.

“Sovereign is he who decides on the exception,” he wrote. In traditional Judaism, God fulfills that function.

For the truly religious, the Torah supersedes human-created legislation – even acts passed by the Israeli Knesset, which is for them, after all, merely a secular parliament.

BDS Gains Traction among Academics

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

Like a snowball rolling downhill, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement aimed at Israel keeps growing – especially among those who teach at universities.

The global BDS movement was initiated by Palestinian organizations in 2005, and is coordinated by the Palestinian BDS National Committee, a group of 27 organizations established in 2007.

It urges various forms of boycott against Israel until it ends its occupation of the lands occupied in June 1967; dismantles the wall dividing the West Bank from Israel proper; and makes Arab citizens of Israel fully equal.

It also demands that Israel allow post-1948 Palestinian refugees and their descendants to return to their homes and properties within present-day Israel, as stipulated in UN General Assembly Resolution 194, passed in December 1948 following the first Arab-Israeli war.

Were all of this to come to pass, it is highly unlikely that Israel would remain a Jewish-majority state, or even continue to exist at all.

Israeli academic institutions are particularly targeted due to what the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) calls their “persistent and deep complicity in planning, implementing and whitewashing crimes against the Palestinian people.”

Their demands are resonating in the United States. On Nov. 27, the National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA) voted to support the boycott; 653 people approved, while only 86 opposed.

One week earlier, the general conference of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) voted to boycott Israeli academic institutions. The resolution, which passed with 1,040 votes in favour and 136 votes against, will go to a vote of the full membership in the spring.

The AAA is the largest American academic association to date to pass an academic boycott resolution.

These two associations join a growing list of scholarly associations and academics which approve of this form of punishing Israel.

They include the American Studies Association, the Association for Asian American Studies, the African Literature Association, the Critical Ethnic Studies Association, the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, the National Association of Chicana and Chicano Studies, the Association for Humanist Sociology, and the Peace and Justice Studies Association.

Some American academics are pushing back. Led by Mark Yudof, president emeritus of the University of California system, and Kenneth Waltzer, former director of Jewish Studies at Michigan State University, the Academic Engagement Network (AEN) has been formed to combat what it calls “Orwellian efforts” to discredit Israel.

Stephen Trachtenberg, president emeritus of George Washington University in Washington, DC, described the network as a group of concerned academics who “have devoted themselves to making it possible for people from all points of view” to speak candidly and without disruption.

“We ourselves are critical of Israel. We don’t claim perfection for Israel and no one expects us to do that,” stated Trachtenberg. “We’re not afraid of fair criticism of Israel.”

Also, the BDS movement suffered defeat at the American Historical Association’s annual conference. On Jan. 9, by a vote of 111-51, the AHA’s business meeting rejected a resolution to sanction Israel over alleged violations of Palestinian academic freedom.

“They understood that this was part of a political campaign and an attempt to use the American Historical Association for political purposes, and they rejected that,” remarked Prof. Jeffrey Herf of the University of Maryland.

“The members of the AHA have very high standards. They were not going to vote for a resolution like this that was making factual assertions that they couldn’t verify themselves.”

Monday, January 11, 2016

Japan is Re-Emerging as an Asian Power

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer
Seven decades since its defeat in the Second World War, Japan is slowly re-emerging as an Asian power.

The war proved cataclysmic for the country; its major cities were firebombed, and Hiroshima and Nagasaki suffered destruction by atomic bombs.

The country was occupied by the United States, and its armed forces dismantled. In 1951 the peace treaty between Japan and 48 Allied countries which had fought against it was signed, restoring Japan’s formal sovereignty. However, neither the Soviet Union nor China were a party to it.

 At the same time, the U.S. and Japan signed a security treaty making Washington responsible for Japan’s defence. It enabled U.S. troops to remain in Japan and opened Japanese facilities as a staging area and logistics base for American forces in the war then being waged in Korea. 

The threat of Communist expansion is mostly gone, yet the U.S. still stations some 47,000 troops in Japan, more than half of them on Okinawa, in the Ryukyu Islands. 

Discontent with the heavy American presence among the 1.4 million Okinawans has grown, especially after incidents of various crimes, including rapes, by American servicemen. 

The Chinese are hoping to exploit this, and some Chinese officials have gone so far as to claim that the entire Ryukyu chain, which was once an independent kingdom and a vassal state of China’s, should belong to them. The islands were annexed by Japan in 1879.

The pact between Japan and the U.S. allows Tokyo to review the amount it spends on the upkeep of the bases every five years. The current agreement is due to come up for renewal in March 2016. 

Tokyo wants to reduce its spending so the money can be used to help expand the country’s Self-Defense Forces.

Last September Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic-led government passed a law that will allow Japan’s military to fight in foreign conflicts, something forbidden until now. 

Critics contend that this violates Japan’s constitution and they fear that it will make the country America’s “deputy sheriff” in Asia and perhaps dragged into an American war.

“We must not become accomplices to murder,” declared Mizuho Fukushima of the Social Democratic Party during the acrimonious debate in parliament 

But Japan fears the growing military might of China and worries that China may be prepared to risk war to fulfill its territorial ambitions.

China is creating a deep-water navy with aircraft carriers and scores of submarines as part of a geopolitical strategy that is trying to reshape the power balance in Asia.

In the South China Sea, Beijing is dredging coral reefs to build eight artificial islands that could be turned into airfields in the disputed waters in the Spratly Archipelago. China insists it has “indisputable sovereignty” over the islands, a claim denied by other countries in the region.

They sit atop what are thought to be large pools of unexploited oil and gas, are surrounded by rich fishing waters, and situated astride some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.

In the East China Sea, the two countries both claim some uninhabited islands the Japanese call the Senkakus and the Chinese call the Diaoyus. The Chinese government states that they are an integral part of China and has produced a timeline reaching back to the 15th century, with historical documents offered as proof of China’s claim.

In turn, the Japanese government has declared that “There is no doubt that the Senkaku Islands are clearly an inherent part of the territory of Japan, in light of historical facts and based upon international law.”

Prime Minister Abe met with Chinese president Xi Jinping at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum last November, but they only noted that “different positions exist” regarding the issue, which remains unresolved. 

So Japan’s cabinet at the end of the year approved a record-high military spending plan of $42.1 billion for 2016, to counter China’s increasingly assertive activity.

Emotions Rule When Dealing with Refugees

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian
The refugee crisis now overwhelming Europe has led to the continent’s publics veering from one extreme to another, like a drunk driving a car erratically from side to side on a road, in their response to this ongoing catastrophe.

Last summer, three-year-old Alan Kurdi, a Syrian boy, washed up on a Turkish beach, drowned while his family was trying to reach Europe. 

Suddenly, there was a huge wave of sympathy for those trying to escape the horrific wars in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere in the Muslim world.

On New Year’s Eve, a very large group of men, very many of them Middle Eastern asylum seekers, were involved in a wave of violent assaults on women in Cologne, Germany. Since then, similar incidents have been reported in other European cities. 

In response, many Europeans have reacted with hostility to all migrants entering Europe.

This form of political “bipolarity” appears to be an emotional, rather than rational, response, which to a large extent has been fuelled by the mass media, in particular television. 

Little Alan Kurdi pulled at people’s heartstrings because this is human nature. All children are innocents, of course, but many, due to their cultural, religious and social backgrounds, will not remain so. (Hitler and Stalin were once kids.)

On the other hand, the criminals engaged in sexual harassment and thievery in Cologne and elsewhere, are clearly a minority of the men coming to Europe seeking a better life, and to castigate an entire group because of them is clearly xenophobic.

Neither extreme makes sense, nor should either become the basis of a reasoned, calm debate about the larger issues facing Europe: how many people can the continent absorb without losing its historic cultural and ethnic makeup? 

Will such a large mass of people arriving in so short a time be assimilated into the norms and values of European democracy, including respect for gays, women and other minority populations? 

Will they embrace the liberal secular character of these societies, with their separation of religion and politics? 

In an opinion piece published in the New York Times on Jan. 9, Anna Sauerbrey, an editor on the opinion page of the Berlin newspaper Der Tagesspiegel, asserted that “Integration will fail if Germany cannot resolve the tension between its secular, liberal laws and culture and the patriarchal and religiously conservative worldviews that some refugees bring with them. 

“We cannot avoid that question out of fear of feeding the far right,” she wrote. “But integration will also fail if a full generation of refugees is demonized on arrival.”

These are the questions that need to be addressed, and emotions in one direction or the other, dictated by specific events, should not affect the policies of decision-makers in governments.

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

American Jewish College Students Face Chilly Climate

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Pioneer Journal
There was an increase in anti-Israel activity on American college campuses during 2015, with over 150 explicitly anti-Israel programs, according to the Anti-Defamation League. Most were tied to the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement which seeks to delegitimize the Jewish state.

As pro-Palestinian groups proliferate, student protesters have taken to shouting down invited Israeli guest lecturers at various campuses and disrupting other events organized by Jewish students.

Anti-Israel activities to delegitimize Israel are increasingly crossing the line into anti-Semitism, in the form of hate speech, harassment and intimidation. Guerrilla theatre and public displays are among the tactics used.

In early November, Assi Azar, an Israeli television personality and LGBT rights advocate, was interrupted during a discussion of his film “Mom, Dad, I have Something to Tell You” at Goucher College in Baltimore.

Also in November, noted Israeli philosopher and professor Moshe Halbertal’s lecture at the University of Minnesota Law School was delayed 40 minutes by shouts and chants until protesters were escorted out of the lecture hall; eventually, three were arrested.

“This was not a West Bank settler, an Israeli soldier or a politician; this was a scholar, an ethicist, a writer. That is what’s distressing,” remarked Rabbi Alexander Davis of Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park, Minnesota. “This was not a demonstration or a rally; it was an academic lecture in a distinguished law school. That is what’s so troubling.”

Later that month, a confrontation occurred between members of the Palestine Solidarity Committee and Israel Studies professor Ami Pedahzur at an Institute for Israel Studies event at the University of Texas in Austin. The students broke up the gathering with shouts of “Free, Free Palestine” and “Long Live the Intifada,” and later accused Pedahzur of Islamophobia.

Pro-Palestinian groups participating in a student protest against tuition increases at the City University of New York in November blamed the high cost of education on “Zionists.”

 “The Zionist administration invests in Israeli companies, companies that support the Israeli occupation, hosts birthright programs and study abroad programs in occupied Palestine, and reproduces settler-colonial ideology throughout CUNY through Zionist content of education,” asserted Students for Justice in Palestine.

Pro-Israel advocates have been pointing for years to a decline of discourse on campus. Kenneth Marcus, president of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, which works to protect the speech of pro-Israel students on college campuses, has spoken of the deteriorating environment Jewish students now face.

 “Universities should be oases of reason and tolerance, but they are not,” he has noted. “North American campuses often harbour radical left-wing movements that are hostile to Israel, Zionism, and the Jewish people.”

There have been several troubling incidents this year at University of California (UC) campuses.

The defacing of a Jewish fraternity house at UC Davis with Nazi swastikas took place last January. A month later, several student government leaders at UCLA questioned a student’s eligibility for a campus judicial panel because she is Jewish.

“She failed to pass the political litmus test that so-called progressive students see as their default position: namely, being pro-Palestinian,” wrote Richard Cravatts, president of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.

In April, even a non-political exhibit offering information about Israel was too much for demonstrators at UC Irvine. Marching out of the Cross-Cultural Centre, they chanted slogans, drowning out the music and distracting attention away from the Jewish event. 

Responding to Jewish students who contend that some UC campuses have become a hostile environment for them, in September the university regents debated the vexing issue of how to allow for free speech while protecting students against intolerance and prejudice.

Jewish organizations have urged the regents to adopt the U.S. State Department definition of anti-Semitism that includes demonization of Israel and denial of its right to exist.

Other groups, however, have complained that the regents might go too far, repressing political debate and stifling dissent. The issue remains unresolved and the debate in California, as elsewhere, continues.

But one thing is certain: It’s going to become increasingly unpleasant for Jewish students at colleges across America.

Monday, January 04, 2016

Russia's Traditional Political Culture Returns

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

In the Russian movie Leviathan, released in 2014, the corrupt mayor of a town conspires to expropriate the land on which a local worker’s house stands.

A series of tragic events ensue, and in the end, the house is torn down and the mayor’s project is revealed: a lavish Russian Orthodox Church for his friend the local Russian Orthodox bishop has been built on the site. The film concludes with a sermon by the bishop, with the mayor in attendance.

It’s a microcosm of how things work in post-Communist Russia. Once again, we see the unity of church and state.

Unlike the tradition in the Roman Catholic lands in Europe, where the “two swords” theory separated the temporal and ecclesiastical spheres of a kingdom, the Eastern Orthodox tradition that emerged in Byzantium, known as caesaropapism, united them.

This doctrine combines the power of government with the spiritual influence of the Church. Hence there is little political space for the hierarchy to oppose the ruler.

The Russian state inherited this form of governance in medieval times. And with the collapse of Communism, it has re-emerged. In Vladimir Putin’s post-Soviet Russia, there has been a spectacular ascendancy of the once-powerful Russian Orthodox Church.

Putin supports the Church’s efforts to reclaim properties that were nationalized by the Communists, and to restrict the activities of foreign missionaries, both Catholic and Protestant.

The lower house of parliament, the State Duma, includes a Committee on Property Affairs. Its chair, Sergei Gavrilov, is also Coordinator of the State Duma’s Inter-Factional Group for the Defence of Christian Values.

In return, the “Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia,” Kyrill, the primate of the Russian Orthodox Church, has given his enthusiastic backing to the military as the guarantor of the integrity of “Holy Russia.”

However, in the now-independent Ukraine, its new Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Kyiv Patriarchate, as well as the Ukrainian Greek Catholic (Uniate) Church which is in communion with Rome, both now serve as the religious wings of their state.

The Kyiv Patriarchate separated from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate in 1992, a year after the collapse of the Soviet Union, as that body remained under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow.

The new Church opposes the Russian takeover of the Crimea and the demands by Russians in eastern Ukraine for political autonomy.

Patriarch Filaret, its head, has compared Putin to biblical villains such as Cain and Judas. He in turn was excommunicated by the Ukrainian Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, which retains its loyalty to Kyrill.

As a result, many Ukrainians have switched denominations, moving away from the Moscow Patriarchate.

Last spring, a Moscow Patriarchate priest serving an Orthodox Church in Soloniv, a Ukrainian village, prohibited villagers from praying for the souls of Ukrainian soldiers killed in the war against Russian-backed militants in eastern Ukraine.

By August, the priest was gone -- driven out by villagers who invited a priest from the Kyiv Patriarchate to take over.

Such transitions have been taking place in many Ukrainian-speaking parts of the country, where nationalists consider Russia an enemy. But the Moscow Patriarchate remains strong in the culturally Russian eastern Ukraine.

These tensions continue to inflame relations, both among Ukrainians themselves and between the two countries.